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What to do When You No Longer Want That Tattoo

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 13 Sep 2010 | comments*Discuss
Tattoo Removal Skin Stain Laser Ink

In many ways, a tattoo is probably the most permanent of stains, with the human skin as its canvas. However, while a tattoo may have been an 'intentional' stain at the time of its creation, it may not be so desired later on. Maybe it's the name of a passionate first-love that is now causing embarrassment and jealous arguments, or it's the symbol of your favourite teenage heavy-metal band that now threatens to cost you a successful career with a conservative bank. Don't worry, you're not alone - one doctor who specialises in tattoo removals estimates that about 50% of people regret their tattoos. So, is it possible to remove it?

First, it would be good to have a basic understanding of what a tattoo is: this is a permanent mark or design that is created by injecting ink into a person's skin. The procedure uses an electrically powered tattoo machine that sounds like (and also looks like!) a dentist's drill, which punctures the skin with a fine needle between 50 to 3,000 times a minute, penetrating the skin by about a millimetre and depositing a drop of insoluble ink into the dermal layer each time.

As you can probably guess, such an invasive stain means that there is no simple, home-method to remove it. In fact, for many years, there was no method to remove a tattoo at all and it was something you had to live with for life. However, with new technology and surgical techniques, there are now several methods of tattoo removal. Note - however - that this does not mean your skin returns to its previous unblemished form. Usually, some scarring or colour variation in the skin will remain - depending on the individual's healing process and the size and location of the tattoo, as well as how long it has been on the skin. In addition, a tattoo imprinted by a more experienced tattoo artist will be more evenly injected and thus easier to remove.

Removal Methods

There are 3 main methods of tattoo removal:
  • Dermabrasion - this involves 'sanding' the skin surface and middle layers with a rotary abrasive instrument, which causes the skin to peel. This involves some bleeding and time for the wound to heal.

  • Excision - this is simply cutting out the tattooed area. With small tattoos, this provides complete removal but larger tattoos may have to be excised in stages. Done under anaesthetic, the tattoo is removed in surgery and then the skin edges stitched together. Again, there is bleeding but it is generally well-controlled by electrocautery. For large tattoos, a skin graft taken from another part of the body may be necessary.

  • Laser - by far the most preferred method of tattoo removal as it is bloodless, low risk, with minimal side effects. In fact, the procedure can be done on an outpatient basis in a single or series of visits and patients may not even require topical or local anaesthetics. Basically, pulses of light from the laser are focused on the tattoo to break up the tattoo pigment and then the body's own immune system will remove the "damaged" pigmented tissue. In general, more than one treatment is needed to remove all of the tattoo.

Whichever method you choose, it's important to discuss the details of the procedure, the potential results and the recovery period with your doctor - in particular, post-removal care of the treated area. The skin will be particularly delicate and fragile and you should take especial care to avoid and protect it from sun exposure.

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